I wake up in a panic, nerves sending a fear signal up and down my trembling arms. Adrenaline pours into my veins, shooting up my skin like a shock to my system. My brain races, full of questions and doubts and fears. I can’t sleep again, even though it’s dark. The light from the streetlamp outside my window glares at me, accusingly. I get up, I start pacing.
I wonder if what I’ve done is the right thing. If what I’m doing is the right thing. I feel like I’m jumping out of an airplane, a rug pulled out beneath my feet to reveal that I’m far too high up in the sky and gravity’s tugging on me. I don’t know if I have a parachute. I’m not sure what a parachute would even look like. I’ll need to figure it out later, but probably fairly soon.
Sometimes I’m soaring with the incredible high of experimentation, and other times my mind wonders if it knows just exactly what I’ve gotten myself into. I cling to my practices of yoga, journaling and other meditative daily walks, but they don’t fully temper the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing. My mind is a scramble. I can’t understand the illogical things I’ve put it through. It’s probably for the best that I don’t understand.
There’s no easy way to jump other than to put both feet out and trust the world around you. Trust that you’ll land, that you might fly, that it’s okay to fall, or that some other iteration you can’t predict will come to fruition. Unlike the time I went zip-lining with my sister, where my jump off the platform was so timid that I smacked my butt against the wooden platform below as I launched, I need to lean, and lean so hard that it feels like falling.
I’m falling. This is falling.
While it’s been quiet around these parts lately, that’s just an illusion–a set of unwritten essays and the silence that is days passing a surface skin for a mind and a life that’s been in flux for much of this summer and this year. I look back at my writings for August, noticing that I’ve only scrawled two posts this month; those posts are just a scant glimpse into life behind the scenes and what I’ve been up to. For those familiar with astrology, the world’s been ablaze with the recent Grand Trine, the idea of a shift so large and a planetary arrangement so powerful that people will feel huge changes, up-endings, and fluxes in their life; that dreams become reality; that things get messy; that things resolve — and I don’t just read this, I feel this, I know this, I am living this.
Hello, world. Shall we dance?
Sometimes I struggle with what to write about on this blog—is it a diary? Is it a travel trope of my own adventures? Is it strictly related to writing and communications? It’s not always clear; I share my personal stories and lessons as a window into how I’ve practiced (and continue to practice) the philosophies and principals that underline most of my work, scratching out and re-writing as I go, editing as I learn. I don’t profess to write about myself because that’s the topic at hand; I do love telling the stories I live as a means for sharing bigger ideas and stories. But when I leave myself out of all of the writing and start to write just about rules or teachings or hollow lists, it starts to feel a bit empty.
Like I’ve forgotten to tell you something. Like I’ve left part of myself out.
The past six months have been a whirlwind, to the point that it feels as though I’ve been hiding something. The past year has been a challenge, and I’m not always comfortable talking about all of it. Some of the hands-down-best-things in my life have happened in recent months, but so have some of the scariest and hardest. It wasn’t shiny and glorious; much of it came in a package that felt like I was being thrown repeatedly against a wall like a rag doll and left in a crumpled heap to stand up and fight a bit more. The great moments came with adrenal fatigue, medical problems, extensive biopsies and visits to the doctor. Moments at conferences after months at home, working all day and late nights, and having to look at someone else and not quite share. Not quite tell. These months and moments have been filled with Doubt. Insecurity. Changes. Lives beginning. Lives ending. Leaving my job, starting a new one. Selling my car (finally). Meeting incredible people. Shifting careers, changing tack.
You, too, are probably noticing something in your own life and in the lives of others around you. As I talk with friends and clients and colleagues, I notice that these big shifts aren’t happening in isolation. We’re all experiencing it, the universe seemingly sending the earth into the spin cycle a few extra times, the players and movers jolted into new realities of their own doing–or as a surprise. The economy has been moving and un-sticking; opportunities are opening while entire industry verticals are left career wastelands; some generations are in huge loss while other people are starting to move around much more in jobs and vocations and practices.
I hear stories of daring and adventure, of incredible romance, of deep pain and loss, of glimmers of beauty within the deepest tragedies. Sometimes the suddenness with which you realize a dream can be incredibly unnerving, pressing you forward into a new sense of self, a new definition, a new story before you felt like you committed to the wanting of your dream. And yet the universe sends you out the door and through three new ones, pressing you to discover your readiness through action, not thinking. And other times it seems unfairly agonizing to wait, years of debt and doubt and pain layered into the pursuit of freedom, a tantalizing notion that seems just out of grasp. Change is rattling. Waiting is painful. I’ve watched people get all that they’ve said they wanted, and fall apart. I’ve watched people try for everything they’ve dreamed of and crumble, stall, wander into places they’d never wish to be. They’re surviving. The universe is doing something.
Change is not easy.
… I’m not sure there are many people who say that it is.
Welcome to solo-preneurship*, to adventure, to freedom, to creation.
In my world, a big shift happened a few weeks ago. At the end of July, I parted ways with my wonderful and dear company, SWA Group, the place that has been my home for the last five years. Along the way, we created a number of digital and print communications initiatives — sharing the perspective of landscape architecture and describing how the built world works through books, magazines, blogs, and stories. My colleagues are some of the most talented physical and spatial designers I’ve ever met, and they challenged me constantly to learn how to create physical, built spaces within the tricky world of patterns, codes, rules and regulations–learning how to engineer and design places for human enjoyment. Understanding urban patterns and landscape systems is immensely appealing to me, and something I’ve focused on for a long time.
And yet, I leapt.
It’s exciting–and terrifying.
Transitioning from a wonderful job and a space with colleagues who have been extremely supportive of my adventures and experiments was not an easy choice, and it took several weeks and months to iron out the details and to wrap up my final projects and head out. Out into the world of clients and projects and writing and self-employment. Also the asterisk in the title is a note of caution–I’m not headed straight into “solo-preneurship,” because it’s never truly “solo”-preneurship, like Tara Gentile so aptly reminds us. “Business doesn’t happen in a bubble,” she writes; rather, it happens with teams and clients and support and evolution. And markets. And needs. Further, solo-preneurship is not about late nights hustling indefinitely; while hustling is a part of the journey, it doesn’t need to become the entire journey.
And then, I was here.
Shoved out the door and onto the sidewalk, suitcase in hand. I’m taking all the knowledge and chops I’ve got and doing the best I can.
When did this happen?
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.”– Pema Chödrön
But Sarah, what are you working on? How will you spend your time?
I’ve been avoiding conversations that pull up that dreaded question, that accusatory, “so, what are you doing?” statement, the question that permeates what seems to be nearly every conversation. The rush to fill time—or worse, to apply a story or a definition to how we will spend time—is a national disease we all have, one that requires us to chase productivity and results over holistic being and space for mental clarity. It’s no wonder Time Magazine features a different cover for Americans than the rest of the world when we’re a market more obsessed with our own job performance (and resultant anxiety) than the civil unrest happening in the Middle East. Prayers to Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Israel, and all of the countries in need of deep healing. Including our own.
“The rush to fill time—or worse, to apply a story or a definition to how we will spend time—is a national disease we all have, one that requires us to chase productivity and results over holistic being and space for mental clarity.”
We ask each other what we do before we ask how we’re doing, a quick question that rolls off the tongue faster than you can truly hug someone and look into their eyes, wondering how they actually are. When you’re in transition (and transition is not a temporary state but perhaps an always-state, as Pema Chödrön has gently reminded me in her book, When Things Fall Apart), it’s much harder to answer that question definitively. I have an answer that sounds good, I have an answer that’s short and sweet, I have the answer that helps my parents worry less about my finances (So… how are you supporting yourself?), and I have a few ways to broach the conversation with friends.
The short answer is that I’m writing. And teaching. And learning. And living. The shift, if you put a definition on it, is that I’m no longer working full time with a single employer; I’m working in freelance mode with several clients and project across the country and around the world. Part journalist, part documentarian, part strategist and mostly writer, I’m building a new set of tools and skills and building a new business plan for myself. It’s liberating. It’s thrilling. It brings up every uncertainty I’ve ever had and puts them flat on the kitchen table and stares me square in the face.
It’s full-on accountability.
“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” – Jack Kerouac
One of my first projects was a press campaign for a Y-Combinator company in San Francisco dedicated to helping aging seniors live gracefully. I joined Y-Combinator team True Link Financial, a tech start-up tackling the challenge of fraud target aging seniors. Seniors are increasingly vulnerable to misleading marketing and scams; the company’s cofounders Kai Stinchcombe and Claire McDonnell developed a new credit card with a customizable fraud-blocker that helps prevent your parents’ and grandparents’ money from being irreversibly stolen in the time in their life when they need it most.
Aging is an issue that’s fascinated me throughout my studies of cities and people, and with my grandparents aging and later leaving us, I wonder who will take care of them if we all don’t step in and take care of them. A society with no age diversity should alarm you: we need older people to be thriving within our ecosystems, visibly, or we should be concerned for our own future health. It won’t be long until we’re all old (hopefully–that’s the goal, right?). I wonder who will take care of me when I’m 70, 80, or 90.
“The way you do anything is the way you do everything.”
My second assignment as an independent journalist this summer was joining 1for3.org as a documentarian and writer on a recent trip to Aida Camp, a Palestinian Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. I joined an exceptionally talented team of designers and human rights activists dedicated to making change in a part of the world that needs a lot of love. We traveled to Israel over the summer and spent time in several of the world’s oldest cities, and then focused on the problem of inadequate water access within a camp that serves 6,000 residents. A design and landscape-based challenge, the team built a variety of options to capture stormwater and rainwater, cleanse it, and re-distribute it as potable or recycled water for irrigation and play. While the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is long and complex (see this history of the conflict in maps), the challenge of capturing rainwater on a single site is something that can be implemented in real time. As a documentarian, I wrote 2,500 to 3,000 words per day, and we’re working on pieces for publication this Fall. Nothing in this paragraph suffices to capture what the trip was–I’m struggling for words. It was. I will write more.
And lastly, this Fall I’ll also be teaching again in the Writer’s Workshop, a private group for people who want to build a practice and a community around writing. Writing unlocks our minds and helps us clarify who we are, how we think, and how we connect with others. Last Spring, I opened up the first writing workshop to a group of twenty-five people from around the world and was blown away by the talent, enthusiasm, and dedication of each of the people in the class. I’ve updated and modified the program to make it into a four-week program that focuses on storytelling, imagination, creativity and persuasion–helping writers and aspiring writers of all fields learn how to add more detail, color, and story to their blog posts, essays, and other daily communications.
Writing well is critical to great living. It’s one of my core beliefs, as I dig into understanding the whys behind what I do: writing helps us clarify who we are, what we believe, and serves as an introspective tool for a journey into your own mind. Good writing also helps us get better at explaining ourselves, our ideas, our projects, our thought processes, and our deepest wants and desires. If you want to get better at any job, relationship, or project–get better at writing. Improving your writing makes nearly everything better. If you’ve been to one of my courses or live events before, come join us. ‘ll be sharing more information on the writing class over the next few weeks, and posting details here: http://itstartswith.com/writers-workshop/.
And in addition to leaving my Day job, I’ve left San Francisco for a while.
The distance a country puts between your old life and a new, unprepared, different life–a life now navigated within the corridors of unfamiliar yet strangely reassuring streets–makes me see my old self with more contrast, more clarity. Distance gives perspective. Change shows your edges. Challenges reveal where we have more work to do.
I left San Francisco, heading to Brooklyn, New York for the Fall to build my own writing, teaching, and consulting practice. My client roster was overwhelming my ability to stay sane and get sleep while working full time, and so–I jumped. I leaned, and I leaned hard, arms spinning, free-falling in the the glorious disruption that is change. After long conversations with close friends, my own coaches, and my mentors both at my company and in my life, I wrapped up my time with my employer and I’m in a bit of a free space right now. It’s wonderful, it’s open, it’s strange, it’s new–and it’s now. It’s here. I’m in it.
It’s less of a jolt and disruption, in some ways, because I believe that the old employer–employee relationship is antiquated, and the job that’s perfect for you three years ago is not the same job (and nor are you the same person) today. Everything shifts and is in flux, and the jobs (employers, clients, projects) that stick around longest are ones that match you and your evolving human talents and needs the best. This shift, then, at least for me, is one towards more project-based work; a move that I believe is more in alignment with how corporate and employment relationships should work.
But the truth is, I’m avoiding the heart matter, the real reason I’m changing tracks, the deeper stories woven into this framework of self-employment and time management. It’s easier to talk about jobs and locations and moving, because those are things I can point to. These are the things that feel safer to talk about, for some reason. Yet one of the beautiful, albeit less publicly prominent, stories in my life has has been simply and glossily covered over with the use of words like “life opportunities,” and “strategic choices” and “changes,” and “new directions.” These words mask the beauty of a burgeoning and deepening and marvelous love story I can’t even fully grasp that I’m a part of (me? this is me? how is this happening!?) — and my heart is cracking open with this new adventure. My partner. In life. I can’t wait to write about it, too, whenever the time is right.
In short, I’m stunned by how much my life has changed over the last few years. I bow in deep prayer to the universe and to spirits and to energy flows with thanks and gratitude for the gifts in my life.
We can’t wait until later to work on developing beautiful relationships, to starting new adventures, to leaning, to jumping. It’s always time to practice and to push. It’s an adventure, and you’ve only got a few opportunities to live it.
But let’s dig a little deeper. Even beneath the shift in my relationships and the work that I’m doing is even deeper heart work. Life work. Body work. The thing is, I’m doing some mind work. I’ve been running at full steam for nearly a decade, and in a grasp towards more consciousness and deliberate creation, I’ve slowed down the project roll and I’m consciously practicing choices that make space in my life for essential philosophies and practices I want to devote more time to. I’m continuing to practice saying no to opportunities that don’t quite fit right; no to clients that aren’t a fabulous fit; and no to things that make me tired, cranky, and uncomfortable–like sitting still all day.
And as this moves forward, I’m creating space–ample space–for projects I’ve long put on the back burner.
My critics–largely internal–tell me this is silly, self indulgent, a waste of time. They sit on my shoulders and grumble, moaning about the work I’d better be doing, about the nonsensical things my brain tries to write, cackling in the backdrop. Occasionally I meet a real critic–someone who voices what I’ve been spinning up in my head–and the conversation usually ends with a decent explanation of why I’m doing what I’m doing, surprising even myself.
It can be easy.
It can be now.
My new apartment has a blank wall on it, in a room we’ve devoted to art and creation and the expansive, contemplative work my partner and I are devoted too, and even though we’re not moving in for another week or so, I’ve already scribbled across multiple sheets of paper with ideas, brainstorms, and plans. I’m pinning them up in the invisible wall in my mind. The marked shift is not one of dreaming that I put movement and writing first in my life, but a life in which I actually do it, and continue to align my life according to my values and principles.
Mind work, body work, spirit work.
We are more than the work we create and the products we produce. We are more than the money we earn and the statuses we post. We are humans, to the core, with moving, living, breathing bodies. We are connected, in communities and networks and relationships, and all of the pieces and parts need to be nurtured and allowed; cultivated and fed.
The next few months–nay, longer, please–are about mind work; about spirit work; about body work. We create a career and chase financial gains for consumer-based tendencies; in an effort to challenge these assumptions, the next few months of my life are deliberately about experimentation. I want to push myself (or yield, or soften) into experiments with mind and body. With doing more movement, and less computer work. With changing routines to learn what suits me best. With spirituality first and mental work first. With practices that develop the mind, body and soul. I’ve opened up space in this new life, this new day, for more writing and more movement. More teaching and more learning. More being.
This means its messy, it’s different. There are a lot of late nights (or early nights) with tears. I’m not good at this; I’m not good at being composed and balanced at all times. I don’t expect myself to be, either. I get really stressed out and I want to throw things against walls and I make hyperactive sets of lists and then I feel like a complete failure when I’ve only done one or two things on my list. I put the list down. I listen to waves of anxiety roll across my body, and I practice trying to observe it—not critique it. I spend months in places that don’t feel right and only when it really really doesn’t feel good to I finally leave; and I learn that next time, I’ll listen to my intuition a little more closely. I shift, I dance, I fall.
Finding calm in the midst of chaos is not easy. Today is a day just like any other, and there is no arrival. Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart,” has been a close reminder that the idea of chasing a completeness or an arrival–that feeling of having arrived is a false premise. We are not arriving, we are always arriving. We are always moving. Life is more often a state of chaos than calm; the fleeting satisfaction of completion erodes, too, as time passes and we seek more challenges, learning, opportunities.
The entire process—this ongoing, transitory adventure, this journey—provides fodder for stories and writing and ongoing exploration and journey. The more I grow and learn, the less I feel as though I have any answers at all. I document to track my brain’s inner workings, to train my mind, to place markers in the ground, to discover myself. I write because it’s such a gift to my soul and a beautiful way to connect with others. I teach writing because I hope to share the journey and discovery with like-minded individuals; I learn as much from the talented people I work with as I hope to share.
Thank you for joining me on this journey, and for listening. I’ve created beautiful friendships from this blog and I am grateful to be able to share with each of you.
To living life, to mind work, to creating space.
Tell me what you’ve been working on: I’d love to hear about it in the comments. How has your life shifted and changed over the past year? What’s become clear to you, and what are you working to prioritize? How do you deal with change and transition?